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Sculpture composition.

In many sculpture classes, when the time is appropriate to discuss the principles of composition, the instructor either completely neglects the subject, or worse - they're treated like the Ten Commandments of Art.

For centuries, sculptors made beautiful works of art to be admired by an adoring public. Everyone knew what made a sculpture "right," what gave it that certain feeling which drew people back to look at it again and again. As time passed, the academics tried to codify the properties inherent in fine sculpture so that others could be taught to continue the traditions.

Somewhere along the line, things changed. All of a sudden anything could be called sculpture - a bent fork, a bicycle wheel, a slab of rusting metal. All the rules were being broken. So, if we can't enforce the rules, let's just dump them.

But wait, the situation doesn't have to be a choice between acceptance or rejection. The principles of composition are not really rules, they are explanations of situations that often occur naturally during the act of creating sculpture. Discussing these concepts and putting them into practice is easier than you might think.

Although not technically a principle of composition, purpose should be the foremost aspect of any artwork. We should ask ourselves: Why are we making the sculpture at all? A sculpture should tell a story, express some idea or elicit an emotional response from the viewer.

To get everybody warmed up, choose several well-known historic sculptures, and have your students come up with some reasons for their creations. Why do they think the artists did what they did? Is the work a personal expression of a particular emotion? Is it politically motivated? This discussion will help the students to come up with ideas for making their own artworks.


Aside from the necessity of being able to stand upright and not fall over, a sculpture must also have visual balance. This can easily be achieved by simply placing equal masses directly opposite each other on the visual axis, or apparent center, of a sculpture creating symmetrical balance. Practical, but not always very interesting.

Asymmetrical balance creates greater visual excitement. Construct a sculpture by arranging smaller forms around the visual axis in different positions so that their combined "weight" equals that of larger masses, thus creating the feeling of.balance.

Simple exercises with solid clay forms can be used to develop a sense of visual balance. Textural variations and areas of light and dark colors properly arranged can also give a sense of visual balance to a sculpture.


Proper proportion in a sculpture can create visual strength and excitement. Although the ancient Greeks worked from mathematical rules of proportion, most sculptors develop size relationships intuitively. The idealized proportions of the human body are often translated into this sense of what feels right. Of course, the artist is always free to modify or exaggerate the proportions of a work to get across a particular idea or attitude. Again, simple exercises with solid clay forms can be used to develop a better idea of proportion.

Unity, Repetition and Variety

In order for a sculpture to be a reasonably accurate representation of the artist's vision, all the facets of the object must work as a unified whole. Colors, textures, planes and spaces need to relate harmoniously in order for the sculpture to be effective. If all of these disparate elements can be successfully brought together, unity is achieved. If these elements are simply alike or uniform, however, the result can be stagnant and uninteresting. Therefore, some sort of variety should be sought.

Repeated forms could be produced in different sizes, with varied textures or colors, and still relate to each other. Sometimes, however, if the individual form is interesting by itself, duplication can actually strengthen the final image.

Have students work towards developing sculptures with a unified theme. Next, see what types of forms they can produce which can be repeated to create a larger and more interesting work. Have them try to incorporate some kind of unexpected element to see if it makes a sculpture more lively.

Rhythm and Movement

Rhythm and movement are two subtle aspects of composition. These terms refer to the arrangement of size, color and textural relationships in a sculpture. The object itself does not necessarily move. The manner in which the parts of a work visually play with or against each other can help to direct the viewer's gaze over the sculpture. This sense of movement, if properly presented, can hold the viewer's attention and increase the interest in and appreciation of the sculpture.

So where does all this leave us? In the past, ignoring the principles of composition often prevented artists from having their works shown in officially sanctioned expositions. Today, it seems that many artists gleefully flout design concepts and go on to have financially rewarding careers.

In reality, only the ideas embodied in contemporary sculptures may have changed. Technical skill, competent execution and attention to the principles of composition still provide the basis for high-quality sculpture of lasting aesthetic value. A

Leon Nigrosh is a ceramist and writer in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is the author of Claywork, Lowfire and Sculpting Clay.
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Title Annotation:understanding creative design concepts
Author:Nigrosh, Leon
Publication:School Arts
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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